Irregular warfare was the great scourge of the Civil War west of the Mississippi River. Arkansas, Missouri, Kansas, and the Indian Territory experienced a higher level of irregular warfare than any other part of the country and, if that were not bad enough, the intensity and brutality of irregular warfare in the Trans-Mississippi was unmatched anywhere else. Because of its very nature, however, irregular warfare is difficult to document and describe. In the case of the Trans-Mississippi it involved regular military forces, an array of paramilitary and militia organizations, and literally hundreds of guerrilla bands, large and small, that tended to act independently of civil and military authorities and of each other. These bands coalesced and dissolved as they pleased and left few records of their activities. Most of what we know about this shadowy struggle comes from the records of regular military forces that encountered irregulars.
Irregulars can be grouped into three broad categories. Many were firm adherents of one political cause or the other, that is, they considered themselves to be Union or Confederate partisans and therefore part of the Union or Confederate war efforts, however unofficially. They operated in reasonably well organized bands and sometimes cooperated with regular military forces. These irregulars fit the classic description of guerrillas.
Many irregulars, however, were motivated as much by personal issues as political ideology. They took up arms to avenge acts of violence against their families, settle old scores, or defend their turf against outsiders. They dropped in and out of the war as they chose and only occasionally cooperated with regular forces of either side. For them the only theater of operations that truly counted was the community where they lived, and most stayed close to home throughout the war. These irregulars also can be described as guerrillas, but with the understanding that their primary interests were intensely local. Union and Confederate military authorities had, at best, only limited influence over these local bands.
Still other irregulars were not guerrillas at all but brigands: roving packs of deserters, criminals, and psychopaths who professed no political allegiances (except when it was expedient to do so) and took advantage of the chaos of war to wreak havoc on the defenseless. Their calling cards were murder, rape, torture, theft, and destruction. Union and Confederate authorities sought to suppress these brigands whenever possible.